May 31: “Between Camelots” by David Harris Ebenbach

Hello, Story366! Nice to be blogging at you. I traveled today, returning home to Springfield after five days in Chicago. It was an easy trip, eight hours on the road with clear skies and limited traffic. I was sad to leave my hometown, especially after getting a taste of Wrigley Field again, being up in Lakeview on game days, all four of them Cub victories. Chicago in the summer is my favorite place in the world, but then again, with Karen and the boys back here in Missouri, my heart was never settled, so it’s good to be home. Next time, I’m taking them with me, and I might not ever leave.

Home late today, but I still got the chance to read from David Ebenbach’s Drue Heinz-winning collection Between Camelots, out from University of Pittsburgh Press (just like all the Drue Heinz winners). I’ve met Dave recently at an AWP, as he had some poems in Moon City Review and stopped by our table to say hi. He’s a really nice guy, as well as the double poetry/fiction threat. According to the book, he also seems to have gone by David Harris Ebenbach, which is new to me. Maybe that’s his fiction name and sans middle name is his poetry name. Poet Jim Daniels goes by Jim Daniels while fiction Jim Daniels goes by Jim Ray Daniels. I’ve seen this before.

Anyway, I read a few of Ebenbach’s stories and as much as I admire his poetry, I like his prose even more. He seems to be writing about broken relationships, and the broken people who broke those relationships and get broken in them, which I can identify with, as my last book has the subtitle Breakup Stories. I like characters at this juncture of their lives, facing these problems, seeing what they do, what me and other authors make them do. Ebenbach knows how to play this game, too, and he’s damn good at it.

The first story is a great short, “Misdirections,” one of the best I’ve read in a while, about a soon-to-be broken family handling a mouse problem, as a family, the mouse problem the one thing unifying them. The next story, “Rue Rachel,” about a Massachusetts woman visiting her boyfriend in Montreal, feels a lot like the time I went to Montreal, around 2000, though my trip was less adventurous and featured considerably less sex. The story I’m writing about tonight, the title story, “Between Camelots,” is my favorite of the three, so let’s hit it.

“Between Camelots” is about this guy, Paul, who goes to a coworker’s holiday barbecue (hey, maybe I should have done this story yesterday …) because that coworker has promised to introduce him to one of her friends, a woman named Julie, who has been described to Paul simply as large, a ringing endorsement. Still, Paul has had a dry spell—a kind way of saying he hasn’t dated in a long time and is more or less incompetent at it. Paul arrives at the house and isn’t even sure if he’ll even join in, hanging on the periphery, until the host finds him in the alley when she takes out some garbage. Into the fray he goes, unwanting to mingle, but making his best effort.

The only person the party he identifies with at all is a bald guy named Max, who claims to know neither of the hosts, that he’s just crashing, which Paul laughs off. Max, as it turns out, seems to represent a spirit guide-type character. As Max eats and drinks as much as he can, he doles out advice about dating, life, and barbecues in general. Paul finds him easy to talk to, or at least easy to listen to. Max just about has Paul convinced that he needs to take his life into his own hands, be aggressive, when he walks away, on to the next guest; Max probably has a lot of these encounters, while for Paul, it’s nearly life-changing.

Nearly. Without Max to pump up his ego, to inspire him, Paul deteriorates by the moment,  returning to his normal train of thought, of how pathetic his life is, a series of obligations strung between masturbatory sessions and sleep. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches for Julie, but as day turns to night and the party fizzles, it’s clear Julie isn’t coming. The matchmaker host, Marianna, eventually notes that Julie was going to take a nap, but if that went too long, she wouldn’t come, assuring Paul of how excited she was to meet him. Not cancel-nap excited, but excited.

The title “Between Camelots” by the way, comes from one of Max’s life theories, that his life has been a series of perfect situations—like early Camelot—until someone goes and fucks it up by sleeping with the wrong person—like late Camelot. But he’s always going to find another ideal situation, he’s confident, and at Marianna’s party, he’s simply between Camelots. It’s a great credo for being single, and it’s a great title for a story and a story collection, especially a collection that’s about breaking up, living without someone, searching for the next someone. It’s such a great title and metaphor/theme that I’m jealous of Ebenbach for thinking of it, using it, before I did.

Paul leaves the party at the end of the night, and there is a small shift in his character, something I won’t reveal here. It’s a solid ending to a solid story, though, funny, sad, hopeful, and hopeless all at the same time, and I get the idea that this is a combination that David Harris Ebenbach explores a lot in Between Camelots. This book’s a great find, one I highly recommend.

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May 30: “Rowing to Eden” by Amy Bloom

Happy Memorial Day, Story366! I have to admit that I fully messed up this posting, as I should have done something veteran-related today, or at least Memorial-Day themed, like so many TV cable channels playing war movies all weekend. Today would have been a great day for Phil Klay’s book, which I did about a month ago, and since I’m in Chicago, away from the home base, from my huge stacks of to-read books, I wasn’t able to rectify the fact that I didn’t plan ahead. I scanned the small pile I’d brought and nothing on the pile screams “military,” nor does anything even whisper, “Indy 500.” So, I apologize: No Memorial Day-type story today. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the hell out of the men and woman who served and are serving: I do. One of my nephews was just deployed to Kuwait this past week, so my heart and mind are more with the plight of soldiers and their families more than they ever have been.

As it turns out, the book I’m writing about today, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom, from Vintage, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is more in tune with what’s been going on in my life as of late, is very personally themed. This weekend, I’ve been mentioning my sister, who had a couple of surgeries last week (but is home now and recovering quite well), putting me in the mindset of hospitals, priorities, and mortality. I’ve read the first two stories in Bloom’s book and both feature protagonists who are aiding loved ones going through extensive medical procedures. Both stories are set, primarily, in hospitals, lots of doctors and nurses and machines hooked up to people, the same visions I’d seen this past week through my sister’s phases of prep and recovery. Before cracking Bloom’s book, I had no idea that this is what her stories would be about, so it was serendipitous timing, I guess.

The lead story, the title story, is about a mom who is seeing her daughter transform into her son, a story about gender reassignment surgery, how a mother deals with it. Bloom’s book was published in 2000, so it’s ages before Caitlin, but Bloom’s protagonist, Jane, is full accepting, fully understanding—she even pays for the procedure. The story’s not about her wrestling with her child’s decision at all. It’s more procedural, more about going through the motions, how she can be supportive while still living her own life. It would have been easy to write about “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” but instead, I’m writing about the second story.

“Rowing to Eden” again features a supportive protagonist who nurses someone through medical trauma. In this case, it’s Ellie, and she’s nursing her lifelong best friend, Mai, who is going through breast cancer treatment, including a double mastectomy. Ellie is not only Mai’s best friend, but she has also been through breast cancer, losing her left breast, Mai at her bedside the entire time. It’s quid pro quo, a touching depiction of what friendship really is.

Between Ellie and Mai stands Charley, Mai’s loyal but ham-handed husband, whose care skills include bringing her food (which she doesn’t want) and being there (which she doesn’t always want, either). He’s well meaning, but of course, he doesn’t have the connection to Mai and this particular condition, Ellie’s empathy. And Charley knows that—there’s no way he can’t. On top of that, he believes—since Ellie is a lesbian and so loyal—that Ellie has been in love with Mai the entire time; he has always assumed that part of her life has been watching him and Mai happy together, sad, anxious, jealous. This confrontation is a tense moment in the story, one of the climaxes—an elephant in the room openly addressed—and Bloom handles it really well, making it a civil and earnest discussion instead of an angry or accusatory one. Maybe everyone’s just exhausted from the cancer ordeal, or maybe the exactitude of the situation is gray enough to make Charley’s theory at least partially true. It’s hard to tell, and that’s Bloom’s skillful doing.

“Rowing to Eden” is a long story (as is “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You”), thirty or so pages, giving Bloom a lot of room to really flesh out her characters. The story takes place over several days, several hospital visits, several treatments, and the characters and their plots all have time to develop, evolve. She also isn’t afraid to break from Ellie’s point of view, as we seep into Charley, albeit briefly, a couple of times, and we also get a long passage from Mai, where we find out her particular wants and needs more than we could from any dialogue she’d have with Ellie. Ellie is the main character and we’re in her head the most, though, as she’s the most interesting person here, both the outsider and the insider, the primary and secondary person for Mai, depending on where you are in the story.

This little triangle is enough plot to give away, but the ending has another climax, another tense and remarkable confrontation, the kind that’s so perfect, I’m not sure how I didn’t foresee it, but once I was done with the story, deemed it the obvious and only resolution to everything. It’s beautiful, and I love how it reveals an intimacy that exposes the true heart of the story, Ellie’s true self. “Rowing to Eden” is a fantastic story—and yes, Intro to Fiction students, a cancer story—a remarkable character sketch of not just one person, but three people thrust together into the worst of circumstances.

So glad to spend this morning with Amy Bloom and her excellent collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Now I have to get ready to go to Wrigley, and then after, some kind of superhero movie—I’m not sure which—with my brother and nephew. First thing tomorrow: Back to Missouri and Karen, the boys, and kitty and bunny. Happy Memorial Day!

Amy Bloom

May 29: “Oly” by Robert Vivian

Welcome to Sunday on Memorial Day Weekend, Story366. It’s one of those Sundays in America where we act like it’s a Saturday, right after we acted like it was Saturday on a Saturday. How many times a year does that happen? Five? So many people in America live for Saturdays, the day they can sleep in and then stay up late, do whatever they want, not having to get up the next day for work. Only five times a year do we get to do that two days in a row. Today was one of those days, and that’s what it comes down to: Getting to do whatever you want, without a sleep schedule, two days in a row. I love America.

This helps me as a beer vendor, too. Usually, people are more subdued on a Sunday, drinking less, having spent a lot of their spending money earlier that weekend, starting to plan for going to work on Monday, maybe cutting back on how many beers they drink. (Plus, there’s the church angle, and how a lot of families come on Sunday, both factors that cut down on beer sales.) But a long weekend, those two days without a sleep schedule, mean that I have one more day when people drink their asses off. Today was one of three Sundays every season that happens, the other two being Fourth of July weekend and Labor Day weekend; of course, there’s no guarantee that the Cubs will be home for all three in any given year. Usually, it’s one or two, never three, never none. In any case, I had a nice day today, the best day of the weekend, selling a lot of suds, giving me a deeper thigh burn than I had yesterday. But the Cubs won, so who cares, right?

For today’s post, I read from Robert Vivian’s book Lamb Bright Saviors, chosen by Ron Hansen for the Flyover Fiction Series from Bison Books, a little imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. Before I go any further, I should note, this might not be a story collection. It certainly could be called a novel-in-stories, or maybe just a novel with chapter titles. When I picked it up at that Powell’s in Hyde Park last week, I flipped through and it looked like a short story collection, so I put it on the pile. But writing this tonight, I just want to call a horse a horse and not call a horse a lamb.

The book Lamb Bright Saviors is about this dying preacher named Mr. Gene who walks up a road into a town, trailed by a girl named Mady, about thirteen, who pulls a wagon full of Bibles behind her. I know this because I read the first story/selection/chapter, “Noon Song,” which details this set-up (and for some reason, is in all italics). The second piece, “Mady,” is from Mady’s perspective, the first of four selections named “Mady,” perhaps the protagonist of Lamb Bright Saviors, because she’s with us the whole time and we go to her four times (and Mr. Gene dies—he’s a dying preacher, remember?).

But I’ve chosen, for a couple of reasons, to write about the third piece, “Oly,” a story about one of the men who find Mr. Gene and Mady on the side of the road after Mr. Gene has collapsed. Oly and his friends/brothers have been fishing in a river when they heard Mr. Gene cry out up on the road, though it’s not necessarily clear if it’s because he’s in pain or because he’s just preaching—Mr. Gene preaches as he walks along, whether there’s anyone besides Mady to hear him or not. And because some of his preaching is of the speaking-in-tongues variety, when Oly and his boys come running, Oly’s never sure if Mr. Gene’s speaking the Good Book or having a seizure.

One thing that made me pick “Oly” is because Oly’s kind of nuts, and as he stands on the road, watching Mr. Gene convulse, he wants to laugh. In fact, he has to concentrate very, very hard to not burst out into maniacal laughter, and Vivian has fun inside Oly’s head, his thought process as he fights the urge to lose it, right there, in front of this dying preacher. I like that train of thought, how close Vivian takes us into madness without going all Joker on us, though Oly’s certainly cut of that brand of cloth.

Oly and his friends—including Yarborough, Munoz, and Gus, all of whom have chapters of their own later in Lamb Bright Saviors, and Danny, who doesn’t—take Mr. Gene to a blind woman’s house, where he can rest, recover, or die in the blind woman’s bed. There Oly has to again just keep still, but he ogles Mady, has sex fantasies as he sits in a chair. Oly’s a porn collector—of course he is—and as he stares at Mr. Gene, he envisions naked women floating out of Mr. Gene’s mouth and having sex as they float in the air, right above the dying preacher. That’s just who Oly is. Do any of you, Story366 readers, conjure sex fantasies out of the mouths of dying people? I know I haven’t, but maybe that’s because I’ve not been around a lot of dying people (especially while horny), or maybe because I’m just vanilla. Let me know in the Comments section.

“Oly” isn’t a long or complicated or even a resolved story—and again, that might be because it’s a novel chapter and not a story—so I won’t go any further into what happens, how Oly changes, what he sees after the entangled naked ladies. But I didn’t choose “Oly,” or Oly the man, because of what happens, more because of this character sketch, this oddball who keeps his oddballness bottled up because he wanted to do the right thing, wants to keep on doing it: He knows it’s moral to help save this preacher, so that’s what he does. Despite his psyche, Oly’s a pretty good guy. Does it matter that he’s imagining a couple of his nudie book girls in a sixty-nine while he does it? No, I guess not. (And yeah, the preacher dies, but as far as I can tell, that has nothing to do with Oly’s interior perversions.)

I want to finish Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors because I like what I’ve read and also because I want to know what happens, meet more of these characters, and just read more of Vivian’s sometimes challenging but lush prose. I didn’t know his work before this, but know a lot of people who have studied with him at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and at River Pretty, this writer’s conference that takes place in the Ozarks every semester, run by graduates of Missouri State. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him and those things I heard are right on.

Robert Vivian

May 28: “Flounder” by Ted Sanders

Good to be here, Story366. It’s a beautiful day in Chicago. In case you’ve been following my posts the last couple of days, you know that my sister had some surgery, so I thought I’d give and update on that situation first: Everything is A-Okay, my sister feisty and recovering, heading home first thing tomorrow. Again, thanks for the kind words that have been sent out. All’s well that ends well, and things have ended very well.

Before I stopped by the hospital to find out this good news, I did vend ten cases of Budweiser products to the eager fans at Wrigley Field today. Yesterday was my first day back this season, and that was fun. Today, though, I woke up pretty sore, remote muscles aching from use when there had been any use for months. I countered that with some Tylenol, the great pain equalizer. For this afternoon’s game, I for some reason decided it would be a good idea to work in the upper deck. I like the upper deck, like the guys who work up there, but there’s one catch: Working in the upper deck is harder. The stairs are steeper and smaller, and there’s always the implication that if I tripped going down the stairs, I could technically fall over the edge and into the lower deck—fans have fallen over the years and none have survived. By the second or third inning, I’d gotten my upper deck legs back and was bouncing around like normal. By the seventh inning, though, I was dragging a bit, and by the time I was outside the stadium, I could feel a deep burn on the front of my thighs. Here I sit, typing today’s entry, and that burn, waning, still calls to me.

Thigh burn aside, I also got the chance to read from Ted Sanders’ excellent collection No Animals We Could Name, winner of a Bakeless Prize and released by Graywolf  a couple of years ago. I’ve read three stories so far, all of them pretty great, including “Obit,” a story not only written in newspaper column form, like an obit, but also in future tense, in case you’re teaching and need an example of a future-tense story. This piece earned Sanders an O. Henry to boot. I also read “Jane,” a shorter story about a ghost, a story with an interesting point of view, interesting perspective and distance between the narrator and its subject.

I’m writing about “Flounder,” however, a classic fish story that’s told in not-so-classic fashion. The story begins with a halibut, the description of that halibut, how it lies at the bottom of the sea, how it conducts itself, how it is a halibut. The voice here, in a distant third person, acts almost like a narrator of a TV documentary instead of a short story, some Jacques Cousteau thing, Leonard Nimoy in my ear as the voice. The details are meticulous and exact, casting the slightest hint of judgment, practically a deconstruction of what a halibut is and does instead of exposition to start a short story.

After a couple of pages with the halibut being a halibut, we shift to a man on a boat, a big touristy fishing boat, the kind that rich guys pay to take them out so they can catch a trophy fish. The man—that’s all he’s called throughout the story—has a line in the ocean, just as a bunch of other guys have their lines in the water, too. Boat employees in coveralls—dubbed “men in coveralls” throughout—make sure they catch a fish (and don’t fall over the side). The sections with the man are told in the same documentaryesque voice that the halibut bits are told in, making the man just as much of a subject of this flat-sounding fact dealer as the fish he’s trying to catch. It’s no Old Man and the Sea, but it has the same story,  the same conflict, at its core.

In the middle of the man and the halibut, literally, is an octopus, an octopus that finds itself wrapped around the man’s fishing line, an unwilling and surprising player in this epic struggle. We get some really interesting facts about octopi, how smart they are, how they might be the most intriguing creatures on the earth. Sadly, the octopus’ story does not end happily.

Most of the story, though, is the back and forth between the man and the halibut, and again, this is literal, as each character is at cross purposes. The man wants to pull in the halibut, have his trophy fish and fish story, while the halibut wants to return to its halibutness. There’s a struggle. There’s a victor. There’s disappointment. There’s irony. For anything more specific, I recommend you read the story yourself. It’s a great story.

I really like the stories in No Animals We Could Name because they’re told in such unique ways. Ted Sanders has a gift for unique vantages from which familiar and unfamiliar stories are relayed. I’m not sure if every story in Sanders’ collection is like the three I’ve read—there might be traditionally told tales in there as well. I’d like to find out, though, as so far, this is an excellent book.

Ted Sanders

May 27: “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?)” by Hanan al-Shaykh

Welcome to the long weekend, Story366! Hopefully you have great plans in store. Me? I’m in Chicago, working at Wrigley Field and tending to that family medical thing that I talked about in yesterday’s post. A little big of follow-up surgery was deemed necessary, but it was minor in comparison to yesterday’s procedure. My sister is resting comfortably, everything a success, on her way to a full recovery. Thanks to those of you who dropped personal notes, wishing her and my family well: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

I started the day, more or less, by tending to the ridiculous beard that I’ve been growing since January of 2015, a long goatee that seems to have stalled in the length department, but gets bushier and shaggier every day. My Wrigley job doesn’t allow facial hair that—to quote my vending supervisor—“gets too crazy,” so I had to coral that mother into something that looked deliberate and suave. My mustache had been covering my lips, its tips handlebarring too far down. The line of the beard on my face had also crept down and out, spreading like a rash. So, I spent a good twenty minutes going to town on it. When the dust settled, I thought it looked pretty dope, but the true test was showing up at Wrigley. I had to stop by the office to pick up my ID, and I ran into that vending supervisor and made sure I talked to her, wanting to test the craziness level of the beard: She didn’t say anything, having talked directly to me, looking straight at me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m golden. The finished product:

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Not so crazy, right? Only, why couldn’t I smile for the beard selfie? Anyway, I was prepared to behead that baby if they weren’t going to let me work, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. Tom Ricketts, the Cubs’ Chairman (i.e., owner), walked by me today and I said hi and he said hi and even he didn’t say anything. So, Mike’s beard’s fans: Sleep easy tonight.

Today’s Story366 post is on “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?),” the second story in Hanan al-Shaykh’s collection I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops, translated by Catherine Cobham and published in America by Anchor Books. This is the first translated book I’ve covered this year, as al-Shaykh is Lebanese and writes in Arabic. I’ve not read a lot of literature from the Middle East, not since Comparative Lit courses in college, and nothing by al Shaykh. As part of Story366’s diversity mission, I sought out authors from this region, and one collection showed up more than any other in my research: I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops. So, here we are.

And I’m glad we’re here. I’ve read the first three stories in al-Shaykh’s book and love all of them. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but as soon as I started reading the stories, I was drawn in by how immediately engaging each story was. Al-Shaykh’s stories are fast paced, but also get right down to conflicts and plots and character interactions. For example, the first story, “A Season of Madness,” depicts a woman’s apparent unraveling, initiating her instability in the first sentence: “I fell upon my mother-in-law, biting her nose.” This is a fun story, the woman wanting her husband to divorce her so she can marry another man, her best plan to go as apeshit as possible, hoping he’ll not want her anymore.

That’s a great story, but I like the second, “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?)” even more. It’s the story of an unnamed woman who has been through quite a bit of tragedy as of late. Her husband, who had left her for another woman, has died. Even more recently, her mother, a beloved actor, has also died. On top of all that, her daughter is living in the U.S., leaving her alone. The start of the story finds her swimming in misery, never leaving her house, never putting on clean clothes, not communicating with the world. She is woken from this funk by her daughter, who calls to remind her that there’s a dedication ceremony, their neighborhood renaming their street after her mother. Our protagonist gets dressed, gets cleaned up, and heads out.

At the ceremony, she runs into one of her mother’s old friends, Tanta Samia, who claims to have been speaking to her recently deceased mother. Our hero dismisses the old woman, but recalls her mother’s other friends saying similar things. She’s wondering if there’s been a sudden plague of delusion, all of these friends of her mother either losing it or acting cruel beyond measure. She bets on the former, but eventually figures out what Samia and everyone has been talking about: Seances. They’ve been talking to her mother in the afterlife via seances.

Wanting to talk to her mother, too, our hero goes back to her apartment with Samia and Samia’s friend, Nazik. Without hesitation, the ceremony commences. It involves what seems like simple components, a Ouija board (though it’s never called that), a tea cup, and a Quran. Before long, wouldn’t you know it, the three women are talking with our hero’s mother, utilizing some pointed questions and guided hands across the board. Our hero goes through a whole gambit of emotions, mainly shock and joy, but is disappointed that the conversation with Mom is both brief and informal. The dialogue is more like a casual phone call than a communication after so long, under such auspices; it’s not the epic, end-all reunion she’d expected or hoped for.

The casualness of the afternoon continues as the women talk to other people in the same way, taking turns with the tea cup, what they use to point to the letters on the board. There’s even a “wrong number,” the women talking with someone they don’t know, but listening to him, anyway. When it’s our hero’s turn once again to choose a person, she of course chooses the other person she’s recently loss, the one that has far more explaining to do than her mother: her philandering ex-husband.

I won’t reveal how that conversation goes, or where al-Shaykh takes the story after that, but it’s all in the spirit that the author has invoked (okay, that’s a pun) throughout the story. It’s a tragicomic, light-hearted tale about loss and resolution. I like the protagonist in “The Spirit Is Engaged Now (Do You Want to Hold?),”as I like the woman faking madness in “A Season of Madness.” They are real, down-to-Earth people who choose extreme ways to deal with their problems, and those are the best types of characters, really, people I can relate to, people I can root for because they don’t suffer fools, put up with shit, or stand down in the face of adversity. They’re also a little nuts, which I like, because I’m a little nuts, too. At least I like to think I can be when it’s needed.

I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan al-Shaykh is a nice (re)introduction to writers and stories from the Middle East. I’ve gotten ahold of some other books that I’ll cover as the year progresses. I don’t know much about this region of the world, but feel I know a little bit more now, mainly that they have some great writers there. Not that I doubted that, but hey, the proof is in the pudding, and up on my blog today.

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May 26: “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class” by Michael Gerhard Martin

Happy Thursday, Story366. I’m sitting in a waiting room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, supporting a close relative as she has some surgery. Actually, the surgery is done and she’s in recovery, and we’ll wait a few hours for her to wake up in the ICU so we can see her. So, thumbs up so far on that, a heart procedure, which is always risky, though this seems to have gone swimmingly.

The funny thing about this trip is that my family caravanned from my mom’s place up to the hospital—there’s seven of us—and I just assumed this place was up in Evanston. Nope. NMH is in the heart of the city, in Streeterville, and my family kinda laughed at me for thinking it was up by the university. I defended myself by noting I’ve never been here before, but my mom corrected me by reminding me that I was born here. Point, mom, I guess, but I didn’t have Google Maps on my phone in 1973—I think I was still using the horrid iPhone map app at that point.

So here I am, at the place of my birth, hanging with my immediate family, and things are cruising. I just asked my mom if she wanted to find the room where I was delivered—C-sectioned—and we could maybe reenact it all. My mom could lie on a table and I could hide under the table and one of my siblings could put on scrubs and pretend to make an incision and I could jump up from under the table and scream and kick until someone slapped me. Maybe we’d tie a chord from me to my mom and someone could cut it, but then again, who would give us scissors? This is a hospital. In any case, it’d be a fun way to pass the time until my sister wakes up.

Here in the waiting room, I got to read from Michael Gerhard Martin’s collection Easiest if I Had a Gun, put out by Alleyway Books, a division of Braddock Avenue Books. This was the first of Martin’s work I’ve read, which is cool, as finding new authors is one of those main objectives of Story366. And like the drama of my emergence, it was a fantastic way to pass some time.

The characters in Martin’s stories—I’ve read four of them now—seem to be pretty realistic folks, though they’re folks living on the fringe. Martin’s stories are voice-driven, told in first-person present by characters who have a beef and have no trouble expressing it; some of the stories border on monologues as much as narratives. In “The Strange Ways People Are,” we get a guy taking care of his cranky and dying father. In “Ilka, Ilse, Kostas and Pie,” a bitter restaurateur bemoans a lack of customers. Life’s a bitch, and often, Martin’s characters indeed wonder if things wouldn’t be easier if they just had a gun.

Today I’m writing about the collection’s lead story, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class.” This is the story of Josh Geringer, a kid who is the target of merciless bullying at his private Catholic high school. Josh is smart, nerdy, fat, and a know-it-all, pure Oscar de León, minus the Dominican angle that Díaz’s protagonist has bearing down on him. A couple of guys in particular, Billy Moyer and Brian McVey, give Josh absolute hell, beating on him, messing with his shit, humiliating him in front of girls, as often as they can. Like in Oscar Wao, Josh’s voice is matter-of-fact (though in first person present instead of third past), and as horrible as some of this stuff is, it’s kind of funny to see him think through a plan to ask a girl out, the one girl who has shown him a scrap of kindness. Josh is a likable kid, despite his problems, and you get the idea that he’s going to be okay, that he’s going to rise above the nut-flicks and titty-twisters.

Things get worse, however, as Josh starts thinking that maybe things would be easiest if he had a gun. This evolution is gradual, as he starts by dreaming of ninja throwing stars, then picking up a small knife at a flea market, then actually stealing his grandfather’s old Colt, cleaning it, buying the bullets (Walmart!), and taking it to school. All of a sudden, “Shit Weasel Is Late for Class” isn’t as funny, especially when Josh goes back and forth in his plans, one minute thinking of using his knife to slit his wrists, then next picturing a mass shooting, how big of a hero he’d be if he shot these bullies, ridding the school of their nuisance, once and for all.

When Josh brings the gun to school, the story goes in some pretty unexpected directions, nothing that I pictured. That’s another of Martin’s strengths, to not take the most obvious route. All of his stories, featuring these fringe characters, could easily have become predictable. They never do. Instead, he finds the humanity in these poor souls, while at the same time, finding a way to make his stories fresh and exciting. He is truly the voice of people who think guns would solve their problems, and that, I’m guessing, is a larger part of the population than I’d like to think.

Still haven’t been able to talk my mom into the birth play, even after offering her top billing on the program and on the YouTube credit scroll. Another one of my sisters has offered to take the part, but really, with Mom sitting right here, it would be weird, would seem disingenuous; since I’m a method actor, that just won’t do. At least I got to read Michael Gerhard Martin’s book while I was here. Helped me get into character, anyway.

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May 25: “I Knew You’d Be Lovely” by Alethea Black

Hello, Story366! Writing to you from Chicago once again, as I’ve returned after just a week in Missouri. Got some family stuff going on here tomorrow, but on Friday, I’ll venture up to Wrigley Field to reignite my second career, selling beer at Wrigley Field. Last week, I came in for beer vendor orientation, but this time, I’m ready to go and pass the pilsner. Instead of preparing lectures, reading stories, and conducting workshops, I’ll be buzzing up and down the aisles of the Friendly Confines, lugging lager for the refreshment needs of thirsty (and spendthrift) Cub fans. I’ll be adding a lot of beer vending stories into the blog as the summer commences—lot of interesting shit goes down at Wrigley Field every day—so stay tuned.

Of course, Story366 will still stay focused on short stories, and today, a travel day (an eight-hour drive), is no different. I had the pleasure of reading from Alethea Black’s collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, out from Broadway Paperbacks. I’ve seen Black’s work in lit mags over the years, but this is the first time I’ve focused on it with any intention other than just reading it, let alone writing a little essay about it. That’s really not going to be a problem, though, as I enjoyed the few stories from I Knew You’d Be Lovely very much.

Upon reading the lead story, “That of Which We Cannot Speak,” I thought I’d write about it instead, as it’s a fun, uplifting story, a cocktail party story, and I like party stories. I’ve written about a couple of dinner party stories—Rebecca Lee’s “Bobcat,” for example—and whenever I read a story about a party, I’m always attracted to it. Party stories always have interesting things going on, interesting characters, and a few surprises, mainly because writers need to make party stories more interesting than actual parties—or, reading about parties. Parties are often fun to go to, but have you ever described a party to someone who wasn’t there? Don’t you always get his look, like, “Yeah, great. Wasn’t there. Stop talking.” It’s almost like dream: Ever tell someone about your dream and realize that you’re boring them to death? Of course you have, every time. Parties are the same way: If you’re not there, then it’s just people talking and drinking. So, writers spice parties up with all kinds of events and characters and drama, and Black does that in her opening story, a New Year’s Eve party where a guy meets a woman with laryngitis who can only talk to him by writing a dry erase board (hence, the punny title).

But I’m not writing about “That of Which We Cannot Speak,” as much as I like it. I’m instead writing about the title story, “I Knew You’d Be Lovely,” the last of the three stories I got to so far. In it, Hannah, our protagonist, is looking for a birthday present for her husband, Tom. She’s obsessed with finding the perfect gift, looking up ideas online, asking friends, even reading men’s phones on the train, trying to get an idea, to see into men’s minds for what they really want.

But that’s not the real plot of the story—not really—as there’s this other complication going on at the same time: Tom has a pen pal. A pen pal whom he met at a writer’s workshop in the Czech Republic. A pen pal who lives not so far away, in New York City. A very beautiful female pen pal. That’s the real conflict here.

Just as Hannah obsesses about a present, she obsesses about this pen pal. It’s not helping that this “pen pal” sends letters—Hannah wonders why they can’t just email, why they need to do this traditional, romantic exchange—as Hannah has to get them from the mailbox and give them to Tom. First, she asks him about it. Then she kids about an affair. Then she starts to ask about an affair, not kidding. Then she and Tom speak openly and often about the possibility of an affair. Tom hands her the stack of letters, letting her read them, and the best thing Hannah can come up with, by way of evidence of infidelity, is a poetic, obscure passage in which Sydney (the pen pal) describes her loneliness. Not exactly a red flag, or even a pink one. Plus, Tom isn’t really disappearing or coming home smelling of strange perfume; in fact, he seems to have come home from Prague reinvigorated by his writing retreat, for Hannah, for their physicality.

Hannah reaches a plateau in her jealousy, but really, I have to note—this doesn’t have anything to do with the story, just a sidebar on this situation from your Story366 host—I don’t think Hannah’s being all that nosy or overly suspicious. I don’t consider myself a jealous person, but really, if I was Hannah, and if letters, on fancy stationery, with beautiful, feminine handwriting for the address, started coming, and came every week, on the same day, like clockwork, and the person sending these letters was a beautiful woman who just spent a couple of weeks in Prague with my husband, I wouldn’t just shrug and forget about it, either. One thing I like about this story is that Black doesn’t make Hannah into a nervous harpy—Tom’s behavior presents some debatable judgment, at the very least. Plus, he knows it’s driving her nuts and he doesn’t do anything to assuage her insecurities except drop the stack of letters in front of her; also to note, he’s kept the letters on a stack, so they mean something to him.

Anyway, while Hannah is on this jealousy plateau, lo and behold, Sydney drops by unannounced—she was in the neighborhood—to drop off a birthday present for Tom. Boom. I love this about this story, such a great choice by Black. So much conjecture, so much fantasy, and really, but nothing concrete, so the only thing that was going to make this story work was to put Hannah and Sydney in the same room and see what happens. If this story had not done that, I would have been screaming that the author had left too much on the table, had loaded Chekov’s gun, waved it around like an orchestra conductor, but forgot to squeeze the trigger; I would have murdered a student for missing the opportunity. But that’s why Black is such a great writer, because we get that confrontation, we get these rivals, eye to eye, alone, no one to interrupt in case they … well, anything.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Sydney and Hannah are alone in Hannah and Tom’s apartment—except that Hannah utters the collection’s titular line “I knew you’d be lovely” (to Sydney)—because that would be giving away too much. But once Sydney is there, alone with Hannah, literally anything can happen, and Black doesn’t disappoint. She makes something happen, for sure, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, yet completely satisfying.

Note, Black also strays POV a couple of times in this story, just to give some perspective from both Tom and Sydney at different times, key bits of information about the story that work best coming from their inner thoughts instead of dialogue or any other clunky way Black could have revealed them without Hannah finding out. So, it’s a daring story in that way, breaking POV protocol, but it’s subtle, abbreviated, and adds to the story. I give her credit for taking a chance, for having it pay off.

I really, really like the stories in Alethea Black’s collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, stories about people finding each other, about finding themselves in others. This is one I’ll explore further, the stories so easy to read, Black’s prose so inviting, so soothing, even when there’s utter chaos. A great collection, another I highly recommend.

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May 24: “Hill Clan Cross” by Frank Bill

Greetings, Story366! The string of fabulously cool and sunny days in Springfield ends with a stormy rainy day. I’m not going to discuss weather again—no one reads blogs to hear about weather in places where they don’t live—but the rain has canceled some zoo plans for me and the family, meaning I get my blog post up early, hoping for a clearing. I’ve noted this before, but Springfield’s zoo has this legendary attraction where you can actually feed the giraffes, stand on a deck and have them lick biscuits and lettuce out of your hand with their nine-inch black tongues. When you wake up and think that you’re going to have your hand licked by the nine-inch black tongue of a genuine African giraffe, and it doesn’t happen? Well, that’s enough to put a cloud in the sky of even the sunniest of days.

Speaking of dark skies, I just read the first three stories from Frank Bill’s collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, an FSG Original (a straight-to-paperback book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If dark is the theme of the day, then Bill’s book certainly fits the … bill (sorry). These three stories are as dark, in-your-face, gritty, real, violent, sad, and shocking as anything I’ve read in a while, probably since Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff (no surprise that Pollock blurbs this book and Bill gives him a hefty thanks in the acknowledgments). The stories in Knockemstiff, though, had a more traditional approach to story, situations and settings and characters set up in a first paragraph, on a first page, a bit of exposition to explain where we were, why the incitation of the plot was going to matter. Bill, however, doesn’t bother with any of this, just launching into an incredibly dangerous, exciting, and violent situation in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first story, “Hill Clan Cross,” today’s story of the day. The story’s protagonists, Pitchfork and Darnel, bust into a hotel room, breaking up a drug deal because the dealers, Karl and Irvine, are their employees (and more, it’ll turn out) and have stolen these drugs from them. Dodo and Uhl, the buyers, are stunned, wondering what the fuck is going on, but really, they’re at a drug deal in a motel (in Southern Indiana) and guys with guns have just busted through the door and are beating on them and tying their hands with barbed wire. Not a big mystery as to what’s going on: They’re all fucked.

So we have these three sets of guys, all of whom play different roles in this deal gone bad. How bad does it go? It’s not a very long story, like nine pages, and when shotguns and gym bags of marijuana and barbed-wire bindings are involved, things can only go in so many directions. Added in is the small-town reality: All of these guys know each other, deal with each other, live in the same vicinity. You don’t bust the handle of a shotgun across someone’s jaw, steal their bags of drugs, steal their piles of cash, and then just see them at church on Sunday, nod and smile and shake hands during that part where everyone shakes hands. Someone’s going to die. It might seem obvious, from the outset as to which pair(s) it’s going to be, but Bill hits us up with some surprises, never lets up on the gas to give us time to think about it too much, either.

And that’s just the first story. The first three pieces in Crimes in Southern Indiana act as a triptych, as people who were mentioned in “Hill Clan Cross” turn out to be the protagonists/antagonists of the next two stories, “These Old Bones” and “All the Awful.” If drug dealers blowing each others’ heads off doesn’t prove real and stark enough for you, that’s okay, because these folks also dabble in human sex trafficking—of their own underage family members—to pay off debts, to not end up in shallow graves, full of holes. These people are depraved and desperate and clearly live in a world different from most people’s, different from what society deems acceptable. And Bill scribes it for us, for our entertainment, and damn, he’s good at it.

On top of what happens to whom, the shock and directness of it all, Bill is also a master phrase-turner. If noir legends like Chandler and Hammett have their gumshoe rhetoric, Bill certainly creates his own vernacular, much in the spirit of writers like Pollock and Daniel Woodrell. Uhl, a gun pointed at his head, pisses himself, but Bill describes it thusly: “His crotch found warm fear.” Nobody simply bleeds, but instead: “Blood peeled like three-day-old biscuits.” This is the kind of language that’s peppered throughout, in the right doses, to make the reading of Bill’s stories as eventful as their events.

I’m not sure where Crimes in Southern Indiana goes after these first three stories, if we get more from the two families of bad eggs that make up this world, or if we just go off to other criminals in Frank Bill’s home region. Given my reaction to what I’ve read so far—I love these stories and my heart is still racing—I want to check it out.

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May 23: “Erosive” by Ali Smith

Good day to you, Story366! It’s Monday, the second week of summer break, and yesterday, I had a horribly terrifying feeling: I thought summer school might have started today. Why is this important? Mostly because I teach two courses this summer, and the instructor of those courses is supposed to, you know, go to the classes; well, not mostly: It’s all because of that. Sure, they’re online classes and it’s not like forty students were going to be sitting and waiting in a dark classroom, but still, I would have had to have faked it for today while I scrambled and got my materials together. I had assumed there would be some time off between spring and summer semesters, but never bothered to actually check that. So last night, knowing it was Monday today (I’m at least that on board), it struck me, “Hey, maybe I should check that?” Luckily, the summer semester starts on June 6, so I have two weeks to work on syllabi and assignments and stuff, two weeks to get a freakin’ calendar. If any of my forthcoming students are reading this—because summer students taking a 200-level gen ed elective so often read short story blogs over the summer—worry yourself not: I’ll be ready.

For today’s post, I read from Ali Smith’s collection The Whole Story and Other Stories, out from Anchor Books. This is another book that I picked up in Chicago last week, at that Powell’s by the University of Chicago, and it’s also the second book (out of two) from that stack that is by a British author (Scottish, in Smith’s case). In fact, looking through that stack, a lot of the books are by non-American authors, and I’m thinking that maybe somebody at the University of Chicago recently taught a contemporary European short fiction class, and some U of C undergrad needed beer money and sold her/his books. It kind of reminds me of the time, spring ’14, that I taught Contemporary American Fiction for the first time and put One Hundred Years of Solitude on the syllabus. I didn’t notice it’s not an American book until one of the students said something after we were done reading it. I guess García-Márquez was South American, so that counts, but …..

Okay, I’m rambling: Smith is British. And she’s a good writer. I read a few stories from this collection and note a couple of things about them, some consistencies. The first two stories feature protagonists who work in vintage bookstores, and in fact, might even be the same character (though I doubt it). In the story I’m writing about today, “Erosive,” there’s mention of books and bookstores. Maybe Smith has worked in a vintage bookstore? Or maybe she likes books? I dunno. The other thing I notice about Smith’s collection is that there are a lot of elements of meta-fiction, some of it subtle, some of it in-the-face, bordering on “Lost in the Funhouse”/Deadpool. The lead story, “The Universal Story,” features a narrator writing/telling a story, editing the details across the first couple of pages, starting with a guy at a churchyard, then changing the details, one by one, until we instead get to that woman in the vintage bookstore, all the while explaining why each change is going to make a better story. I’m a fan of “Lost in the Funhouse,” the first time I’d ever read anything like it, and I like what Smith does with it here, not as invasive as Barth, but still, someone’s writing a story, and there’s communication between that writer and the reader.

“Erosive” plays with meta-fiction, too, the narrator asking readers what kind of details we need to know before he/she (we don’t know) commences with the story. What does he/she look like? What color hair does he/she have? How much do money does he/she make? In an intro fiction class (like the kind of teaching this summer, but not today), we do that exercise, make a list of character traits for your protagonist, twenty or so facts like the ones Smith lists, plus religion, political leanings, and whether they like Chicago-style pizza or the wrong kind. Not exactly sure what Smith is going for with this, because it only lasts for half the first paragraph. Then Smith gives us this line: “Look at me now, here I am at the beginning, the middle and the end all at once, in love with someone I can’t have.” The meta-fiction is short lived, as the story never goes back to it.

That line I just quoted is important in structural ways, too, because after this epigraph that lasts about a page, the story is cut into three sections, labeled “Middle,” “End,” and “Beginning” in that order. We get the nod about this structure early on, and the story plays it out. Stories are often told out of sequence—it’s a hallmark of contemporary fiction—but Smith calls it attention it here.

What does any of this have to do with the story part of this story? Not sure. Sometime choices like the ones Smith makes with voice and structure and approach set a tone more than provide any sort of logical or metaphorical significance, and certainly, all the choices she makes here definitely get a reader thinking about experimentation, about why she’s doing what she’s doing. The story is pretty interesting, too, though—I wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t—that narrator we met early on with an aphid/ant problem around her/his apple tree. This apple tree is young and makes some good apples and the narrator doesn’t want to lose it to these pests. He/she asks advice from several different sources as to how to get rid of ants, inciting the conflict, standard protagonist vs. nature-type stuff.

But this is also where the story gets fun, as every person that is asked gives completely different advice on how to get rid of ants, including chili powder, white paint, and voodoo magic. Okay, I made up that last one, but frustration mounts as everything fails miserably, the aphids and ants only growing in number and intensity.

Remember, though, the end of the story is the “Beginning.” We get back to that person from that quoted sentence that the narrator loves but cannot be with at the end, tying things together nicely, giving us some stakes (an ant problem is a thin plot) and some unpredictable turns, not to mention some great writing and great language.

The Whole Story is like that, a writer making interesting non-traditional choices, weaving them around interesting, unpredictable narratives. Ali Smith, like so many authors I’ve read this year, writes stories I’ve never read before, and I like that. Another find.

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May 22: “Old Soul” by Sam Lipsyte

Happy Sunday, Story366! Can I start with “Another beautiful day!” yet again? Well, it is. Yesterday, I spoke of how nice Missourians are, so I’ll have to also dote on the weather here. It snows a bit in January, which is nice, and the weather can be quite unpredictable in the spring months. Still, the number of what I’d call “perfect days” is much higher in Springfield than it is in Chicago or Northwest Ohio (the two other places I’ve lived). Moving down scale, the number of tolerable days is much higher, too, meaning that the number of intolerable days is considerably fewer.

Yet, at the height of the the beautiful part of this day, here I am, writing a blog post at some desk, actually talking about the weather. What, Story366 readers, have you and I just gotten on an elevator together? Did we just walk into the same pizza place to pick up a pie? Have we just encountered each other in the same video store backroom, searching for adult entertainment? You get the picture. No more words on the weather unless the weather is newsworthy, awful somehow. Knock on wood.

Speaking of uncomfortable encounters, for today’s post, I’ve read from Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte, out from Open City Books. Lipsyte is the author of other books, including another collection The Fun Parts, which I also have on the Story366 stack. Not sure if I’ll be doubling up on authors at any point this year, so I chose the small-press book, Venus Drive, just to give Open City more of a shout out. Lipsyte has also written a few novels, at least one of them a best-seller. I’ve haven’t read them, but I’ve heard they’re pretty spectastic.

Anyway, I used that transition “Speaking of uncomfortable encounters …” to star that last paragraph, then went off and made the paragraph the author bio paragraph. So, backtracking … speaking of uncomfortable encounters, wow, the stories in Venus Drive are pretty fucked-up. Or, they have feature fucked-up people doing fucked-up things—the stories themselves are pretty great. I was reading them in the bathroom just now—yeah, I do that, and so do you, so stop judging me—a bathroom in a campus building, so it was a stall, metal doors encasing me, granting me privacy. This factors in, because the first story, “Old Soul,” starts off in a peepshow booth. Sure, a Siceluff Hall bathroom stall is no peepshow booth, but in a small way, I felt like I was there, in a little box, slipping quarters into a slot so a pour soul would do awful things for me. That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?

Maybe it is. But the story “Old Soul” is no stretch, nothing that tries to be anything but what it is. The narrator, of the first-person present variety, is in a peep booth, shelling out money for a woman to let him fondle her through a slot in a glass partition. He’s not to poke, scratch, pull or tweak, just caress—even peepshow joints have to have standards, I guess. Anyway, our narrator is having a good old time, but when the woman in the booth turns around, offers him her bare backside, he becomes obsessed with a pimple she has in a vicarious place. First he thumbs it, then pokes at it, getting himself kicked out of the place, Peep City, for good. Thank goodness there’s Peeptown so our guy can still get his peeps in. He does eventually go to Peeptown, or some similar establishment, which is a much more relaxed sort of peeping joint. One of the peepees even heads back to his place with him—he had to promise to buy her drugs, but still. I’d bet she’d even let him do whatever to her pimples. Lipsyte proves here that there’s someone for everyone in “Old Soul.” So, lonely Story366 reader, there’s hope for you yet.

Now that all the peeping talk is out of the way—I’ve just taken a break to wash my hands and face—the story is actually about something else. Amidst all the filthy behavior our narrator exhibits, it might be for a reason: His beloved sister is in a cancer ward, dying, and he’s having trouble mustering the strength to go and visit her. Even his deadbeat druggie friend Gary, the one who referred him to Peep City, nags him until he sees his sister. It’s like, come on, she has cancer. She’s dying. Go see your sister.

Our boy does just that, redeeming him and his lifestyle and his choices and his logic. Right? That’s what’s supposed to happen in stories, isn’t it? The protagonist finds redemption, changes somehow. One minute, this guy’s popping zits on a sex worker’s ass, the next, he’s kneeling next to his poor sister, comforting her as she’s ready to expire. Story 101, really. Good for you, Sam Lipsyte.

Well, if you read “Old Soul” and think that, you’ll be surprised. Usually, being surprised in a story is a good thing—pleasant, as they say. Trust me, though, dear Story366 reader, how Lipsyte ends his story, with as surprising  of an ending as any I’ve read this year, is in no way redemptive, does not really indicate any kind of change. You’ll need to read the story to find out what it is, but brace yourself.

I’ve been playing the “oh, that’s disgusting” card a lot in this post, pretending to somehow be offending by things like the sex industry and drug addiction, when really, I don’t care. It’s a story, and I’m more than aware of the depths that people will go to make money, to get off, two things that often conflate. That’s why there’s a sex industry. I actually admire “Old Soul” a lot for being so honest, for writing about a bad guy and not making him good, skipping the redemption part altogether, making him worse. How many stories have I read like that this year? Not a whole lot. Lipsyte’s other stories in Venus Drive are like that, too, full of opportunistic, down-and-out people, a combination that’s going to lead to some crazy, fucked-up shit. Good for Lipsyte to write a book like that. His stories will stick with me longer than if he’d somehow held back, made his characters more likeable, empathetic. That would have been predictable, but who reads stories for predictability?

Venus Drive is the book I’ve described above, at least in its first three stories. Again, I’m not sure if I’ll be Story366ing The Fun Parts this year, but I do want to read that book, just to see what it is that Sam Lipsyte does, if his characters in his other books are just as morally insipid as the ones I’ve encountered. He’s piqued my interest for sure, and given the court of public opinion on his work, I’m not the only one.

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